We’ve all seen it — with one out, two strikes, and a man on first, the pitcher comes up to the plate. Everyone in the stadium is expecting a bunt, and the pitcher doesn’t disappoint. The ball is bunted down the third base line, except it rolls just over the line and into foul territory.
Foul balls seem to be a simple concept in baseball, but their intricacies can confuse even the most seasoned fan. Nearly everyone knows the basics: If the ball lands outside the foul lines, it’s a foul. If it lands inside the lines, it’s fair. Easy enough.
But what happens if the ball rolls over the line? What if it rolls over the line before it reaches first or third base? What happens if the ball bounces off third base and flies into the stands?
Our simple “lands in fair territory, it’s fair” rule works for the vast majority of plays, but it’s interesting to look into the uncommon cases and see what happens then. Let’s consider.
If a hit ball lands in fair territory but rolls into foul territory before it reaches first or third base, the ball is foul. This doesn’t happen terribly often, since most batters make enough contact with the ball to either carry it into the outfield or send it high enough into the air that rolling isn’t an issue.
If the case is like our bunting pitcher earlier, though, things are different. If a bunted ball goes foul when there are two strikes in the count, the foul is called as a third strike.
Suppose, say, Nick Swisher is up to the plate and belts a ball into left field. The ball flies along the third base line, landing just fair but then bouncing into foul territory. In that case, the ball is still fair.
The boundary is either first or third base — as long as the ball is fair when it passes first or third, it’s fair. Of course, if the ball is fair in the air over one of those bases but lands in foul territory, it’s a foul ball.
What if the ball hits a base, though? It’s probably not going to be an issue if a ball hits second base, since it’s nowhere near foul territory, but what if the ball bounces off first base on a line drive? Once a ball hits a base (no matter which one), it’s fair. It doesn’t matter where the ball lands afterward.
These situations are even less common than the above one, since a defensive player is likely to be standing on the base and be able to make a play.
Here’s an interesting situation: Suppose Todd Helton hits a ball along the first base line, it lands fair in right field, and then bounces into the stands in foul territory. We know the ball landed fair past first base, so it’s fair even if it ends up in foul territory, but the ball is currently out of play.
In this case, the ball is ruled a ground-rule double, and Todd is awarded two bases. This would be the same as if he’d hit the ball into deep center field and it had bounced into the stands.
The trajectory of the ball would make a play like this extremely unlikely, unless the ball had a tremendous amount of spin on it, but theoretically, it could happen. On the other hand, if the ball lands in the infield and then bounces into the stands before it crosses first base, the ball would be foul.
Ground rules aren’t the same everywhere, however. While the August 22, 2009 showdown between the Philadelphia Phillies and the New York Mets is most famous for Eric Bruntlett’s unassisted triple play, it also included an inside-the-park home run when the ball got stuck under the padding where the wall meets the warning track.
Shane Victorino gave up on the play, assuming a ground rule double would be awarded. While that may have been true at another park, the situation wasn’t included in the ground rules for Citi Field—and thus the umpire allowed the runner to go home and score.
Somewhat more common is the case where a fly ball hits the foul pole. Clearly, if the ball goes inside the pole, it’s a homerun, whereas a ball hit outside the pole is a foul. But if, say, Albert Pujols hits the ball straight into the foul pole, he’s still credited with a home run.
Of course, knowing Pujols, he’d be more likely to hit the ball straight through the foul pole, but that’s another story.
One last note: If a ball is hit into the roof of an indoor structure in fair territory and lands in foul territory, the ball is foul. If the ball becomes lodged in the roof support structure and does not return to the field, the ball is generally foul, though rules depend on the stadium in question.
The Tampa Bay Rays’ Tropicana Field has several catwalks suspended from the roof, some of which are in play, and others of which are not. In the 2008 ALDS, Rays third baseman Evan Longoria hit the C ring catwalk and was awarded a home run.